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Blood Mountain is a very difficult album to get a grip on. It’s one of the most obstinate albums I’ve ever heard released by a mainstream metal band, and not in a good, “we’re-not-going-to-compromise-on-our-music-and-MTV-be-damned” way, but rather in the sense of a band refusing to learn from it’s past mistakes, or listen to any criticism offered. While in some circumstances, such iconoclastic behaviour is worthy of admiration, here I can only greet it with perplexity and, yes, a definite degree of disappointment. Because while it is true that Mastodon have enormous potential, it’s equally true that they lack a clear idea of precisely what they want to do.
The radical divergence of opinions on this album certainly suits its confused nature. While some hate and others worship this album, I can’t really seem to follow either mindset. Because really, there is almost as much to like here, as there is to despise. Mastodon are as capable of inspiring and pleasing as they are of aggravating the listener, which really makes this album’s failures all the more crushing.
First of all, the music on display here can certainly attest to the fact that these guys CAN play their instruments, and damn well. But even this brings me to the first issue I have with this album, one I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. Here the technicality can actually damage the music. Far too often the band seems desperate for something to do, so they’ll randomly throw in a section where they haphazardly hit seemingly random notes and change the time signatures to some outlandish scheme, as if under the delusion that this somehow makes their compositions ‘progressive’. Meshuggah these guys are not. They simply lack the songwriting ability to accomplish such odd bouts of experimentation (for want of a better term) or thematic deviation within the same track. Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than in the instrumental “Bladecatcher”, where after an opening that sounds like music from an old Zelda game, they promptly drop into an epileptic bout of tremolo picked riffs with some random noise that sounds like a heavily distorted recording of a guy shrieking 'buppity-buppity' into a microphone, with R2-D2 doing backing vocals. Essentially, the entire song is this odd Zelda-esque theme with the aforementioned random interval plunked down in the middle of it. Despite what these guys may have thought, it’s in no way artistic, let alone enjoyable, and doesn’t prompt the listener to do anything more than hit the skip button.
Another symptom of the overuse of technicality here is the over-the-top, utterly obnoxious drumming that plagues the entire running time of this LP, with the exception of the final track. Brann Dailor is, quite simply put, one of the most irritating drummers I’ve heard, not because of missed cues, but because of his adamant refusal to ever SHUT UP. Everything seems to be an opportunity to throw in copious amounts of snare fills, drum rolls, useless beat changes, or better yet, all three in the space of one song!
Another problem that frequently crops up with this album (and I believe is, at least in part, responsible for the first one I mentioned) is the sense of aimlessness that dogs it. With significant portions of this album, Mastodon seem to have tried to walk the tightrope between introspective psychedelia, and the more focused realm of metal, and far too often fall off; and in fact, this only makes it that much more painful when it works. If the whole album could have maintained the monolithic, psychedelic, yet purposeful feel of “Sleeping Giant”, it would be a classic. This is also perhaps the song where Dailor’s drumming is at its least obnoxious, and is one of the few from this album I still listen to consistently.
Another disappointing aspect of the instrumentation is the dual singers. While normally with a pair of vocalists, one would expect a wider range of singing, here they sound practically identical. The only way to keep their contributions from blending together is through careful listening, which this album is not likely to provoke (at least not for long).
Ironically enough, for a band that seems so desperate to be labeled one of metal’s progressive or innovative forces, the best songs here tend to be the ones that adhere relatively closely to more conventional songwriting structures. There’s a reason “Colony of Birchmen” was the single off this: it’s one of the few songs here that sticks to a relatively straight-edge verse-chorus-verse formula, and in so doing, maintains a distinct sense of catchiness. It also doesn’t hurt that it seems to have stolen all the good riffs and leads from the adjacent songs. Opener “The Wolf is Loose” is another example of this, managing to maintain an almost speed metal feel throughout its short three and a half minute length. Once again, the main issue with this one is the ridiculously over-indulgent drumming, although, personally, the hardcore vocals don’t do much for me either (although they’re far more excusable).
Perhaps most distressingly is the fact that the best quality of this album is not the music, but rather the artwork. Seriously, I have to give these guys credit for having a great looking album. The cover art and inside of the insert is impeccable, possessing a rather beautiful theme of psychedelic mysticism. While the artistic direction seems to derive its inspiration rather deeply from Hindu art, it depicts mythological themes from a variety of different sources, all to excellent effect. Pity the music inside doesn’t really do justice to it.
Ultimately, I cannot proclaim this album to be anything more than the failure it is. While I admit that when I first bought it I was rather enamoured with it, the veneer of that admiration quickly wears thin. While this album is certainly more daring than anything I would typically expect of a band that has so smoothly flirted with the mainstream as Mastodon, it quickly reveals itself to be nothing more than a half-baked, naïve attempt at progressive sludge, by a band too inexperienced to do justice to either of those genres. Until Mastodon learn how to accomplish their lofty goals, and to do so in a matter that gives a little more credit to the intricacies of the music they’ve chosen to play, they’ll continue to be laughed off the stage by metal fans that have experienced more than few trends in their time.